Wednesday, 26 January 2011

Review: The Honey Month by Amal El-Mohtar (Papaveria Press, 2010; no ISBN)


Amal El-Mohtar’s The Honey Month is really the literary equivalent of a concept album. Having received a gift of samples of 28 different types of honey from a friend, the writer resolved to taste one a day, and produce a piece of writing each day which reflected the experience of each different honey. The result is a delightful debut collection whose poems and short stories are more than just an aesthetic pleasure; they are a rich sensual indulgence. There’s an ethereal, rather fairytale quality to the writing; but that doesn’t mean there is nothing here for those who like their poetry to be more intellectual.

The first thing that strikes the reader is what a gorgeous book this is. It’s not just the fonts used, the quality of the paper, and the overall feel of the book in one’s hand; the beautiful illustrations by Oliver Hunter, ranging from line drawings to full-page colour artworks, make this a visual feast. It’s fitting that a collection dedicated to a sensory exploration as well as an imaginative one should delight by sight and touch as well as by the music of the writing itself. One reviewer described this as “literary synaesthesia”, and I’m inclined to agree.

The writing in this collection ranges through free verse and formal poetry, prose poems, and short stories. The favoured poetic style is free verse or prose poem, but the poet also has a fascination for villanelles. These are not strictly formal in metre, but where the poet bends the form she does so knowingly, and never pushes things too far. The overall effect is to enhance the poems, rather than weaken them. Day 6 – Lemon Creamed Honey, with its “yellow laughter from a yellow-sounding throng” was my favourite of these.

There’s a light sentimentalism inherent in some of the writing. But like the honeys themselves, the poet keeps any sugar-sweetness well balanced – sometimes with a piece of tart allegory, often with an understated bitter note which makes it clear that this is a poet who has lived, loved, and lost, and dreams of doing it all again. The prayer to the rose in Day 4 – Raspberry Rose Honey struck me as particularly knowing:

“Oh Rose, aren’t you sick
of metaphors, of perfection,
of being Queen to a grasping multitude
who’ve never brushed a thorn?”

Some pieces are a wistful revisiting of the poet’s Canadian childhood. Day 12 – Red Gum Honey is characteristic:

“She wakes to quiet loneliness,
dresses, walks to her windowsill,
and sip by sip, lick by lick,
draws night back home again.”

Others have us rambling across the Cornish countryside which is her current home, in search of magical beings. Day 7 – Thistle Honey introduces us to Scraggle, the thistle pixie who “looks like summer”, while Day 22 – Malaysian Rainforest Honey brings a troll by a trash can, an air-sucking spirit in a water spout, and a romantic beggar girl with “eyes like penny candy.”

Not everything in the honey world is sweetness and light. This is particularly true of the short stories in the second half of the book, where more serious subtexts lurk just beneath the fairytale words. Metaphors for addiction (the eerie ravens of Day 18 – Manuka Honey), depression (the Rapunzel-like girl in Day 24 – Apricot Creamed Honey), and suicide (the mermaid of Day 25 – Raw Manuka Honey) are particularly potent here.

Day 11 – Blackberry Honey tugs us out of fairytale land with a jolt. This is a protest poem with an edge of steel to it:

“They pulled me from the rubble
like a fabled sword; never
was Excalibur so tarnished.”

To create a war poem with a weight of truth in a cynical age is no mean feat. Perhaps more strongly here than in any other poem in the collection, there is a suggestion that this poet’s words are going to become more powerful and even more compelling in her future work.

It is the yearning romanticism which colours almost every poem, the sense of heartbreak in the subtext, which leaves the strongest impression after the book is closed. The motif of the bees’ nectar-dance occurs throughout as an extended metaphor for the emotional journey of love. Usually the dance is doomed. In Day 16 – Blueberry Honey the poet is left contemplating the wiles of the destructive ex-lover (“the twist of your lips in a secret fit to kiss”), while in Day 26 – Blackberry Creamed Honey the poet seems to put herself in the persona of seducer, musing on the lover she leaves behind (“quiet and crunching on cardamom, licking honey from his lips”). “Why are you so sad, girl, you who love us so much?” ask the bees in Day 28 – French Chestnut Honey. The poet’s answer? “I am only a girl, a small plain girl, a girl who must smear her lips in honey to be found sweet.”

In just one poem, Day 2 – Peach Creamed Honey, the dance of love seems innocent and new:

“They say
she likes to suck peaches. Not eat them, suck them,
tilt her head back down and let the juice drip
sticky down her chin, before licking, sucking,
swallowing the sunshine of it down.”

This was my favourite poem in the collection, a sensual overdose that metamorphoses from free verse to pulsating rhyme in a beautifully crafted climax. The impression is of a poem about loss of virginity, but with no mention of sex anywhere. It’s joyous, it’s full of summer, and it made me feel young again.

I don’t think I can recommend this collection highly enough. I’m a sucker for fairytales, so that aspect of the collection won me over instantly. But there is plenty here that those who like their poetry more firmly rooted in real earth can feast on too. It is a triumphant debut for a poet with a mesmerising voice. I look forward to hearing more from Amal El-Mohtar very soon.

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